What does it mean to be mindful and what does it have to do with reducing stress? I’ve been practicing mindfulness every day for the past few years, after many years of wishing I practiced. To practice mindfulness, I had to separate myself from some of the activities and circumstances that increased my feelings of stress. After a few years of better managing my environment, instead of it managing me, I slowly went back to all activities with a new sense of presence and awareness, with a new ability to notice and respond to my sense of stress throughout the day.
What did I do to separate myself or better manage my environment? In the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I asked myself to simply notice what was causing stress for me? I knew that I hated being late for appointments and that included driving in unpredictable traffic to work every day. I made a simple commitment to not be late for meetings by showing up 10-15 minutes early whenever possible. If I have meetings in the city (an hour away by car) I leave home a half hour earlier than usual. That way, if I’m stuck in traffic I won’t stress about being late and if I’m lucky enough not to be delayed by traffic, I can take a walk, grab a cup of coffee or prepare for meetings before they start. That way, I show up rested, relaxed and ready.
Another way I manage my environment instead of it managing me, is to pay myself the gift of space and time in my mornings and evenings as much as possible. This practice requires me to get out of bed a half hour earlier each day to meditate, write, enjoy that first cup of coffee and be present to what my body is telling me it wants today. Sometimes, that means I need a little more time to drop-in, meditate, reflect, write or take a longer stretch to get into my body before the day starts. The days when I can book-end this time for myself, after work as well as before, are banner mindfulness days, even if it’s only ten minutes of extra time for me. I started to notice, not only am I relatively stress free on those days, but I’m much better at my job, more able to attend to clients, intuit more and be a better listener as a coach.
What little tricks of space and time can you find in your days to practice being mindful? The mindfulness gurus say we can aspire to live without stress at all. That’s an aspiration that might take a lifetime for me or perhaps I will never find it, however I believe it’s worth trying!
Life has felt a whole lot better, with a little mindfulness practice each day, or longer practices that I make time for, so these precious moments are not consumed by other demands. By separating myself from mindless activities that create stress and showing up for myself several times a day, there are some simple tricks that also work for my very busy executive coaching clients.
Simple Mindfulness Practices
When you move, practice being more aware of the pace you’re moving, either in your car, walking to meetings, running to the bathroom or noticing that you’re racing through lunch or not really attending to the needs of others. Conversely, my wrist watch reminds me to move, if I’ve been sitting too long at my desk or in meetings. This helps me to center my attention or take an essential deep breath or stretch, to bring my attention back to the present moment. Again, these reminders are about the pace I’m moving or not moving that allow me to get back to myself and into my body.
I keep a sticky note at my desk to remind myself to slow down, just a little, or a perhaps a lot! This reminder has helped me to notice when I’m holding my breath to get through a few dozen emails before a next meeting, or to regain awareness that I can choose how fast I’m going, knowing that no one else can or will do that for me.
A reminder on my phone every two hours says – what is (actually) here now? This short phrase supports me to stop what I’m doing and be mindful in the moment. The text reminder jars my attention back to my breath, so I can take a few deep ones, to regain a sense of myself that I can so easily throw away when responding or reacting to the world around me. These simple practices may seem remedial or unnecessary, however, in utilizing them to kick-start a mindfulness practice, I’ve extended my ability to be aware and present for many months instead of dropping the habits entirely.
One of my favorite practices is to remember to pause whenever I’m making a transition in time or place, such as entering a room for a meeting, getting out of my car, stopping at a traffic light in my car, preparing for my next conversation or readying my head and heart to give my next activity or person the full attention it (he/she) deserves. These transitions between times or activities are what I call “white spaces” that offer moments to practice, take deep breaths, set intentions for what I’m about to do next. Paying attention to the multiple transitions we make throughout a day can relieve stress or lower anxiety that might be held in your body as you move from one moment to the next. These many invitations in a day have become the barometers for how I’m feeling and what I might need in this moment. They are small gifts of time that are ours for the taking. I think of them as training wheels in my mindfulness practice.
The practice of mindfulness for stress reduction is a way of living and moving throughout our days. The reminder that, “we are what we practice,” is what stress reduction is all about. It’s about being simply present throughout the day for ourselves and no-one else. A selfish act perhaps, but well worth the investment for the payback we and others receive from our deliberate practices. It’s all about feeling and being great!
I’m grateful that I made the radical move to jump out into the unknown as the lessons I had to learn about resilience, creative energy and vitality are similar to what many executives struggle with in our volatile, unpredictable, constantly changing and ambiguous (VUCA) work world.